Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Can Art ignore beauty?

I see there is a new book just out by University of Canterbury's Philosophy of Art lecturer and Arts & Letters Daily founder, Denis Dutton. Called The Art Instinct, it is apparently a Darwinian approach to the evolution of art, modelled on Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct.

I gather it is not so much about an 'Art' as an Aesthetic instinct. The two are very different - and although a lot of art ignores beauty and visual seduction, it clearly retains the status of art and is part of its history. Most of us would agree I think, but would Dutton?

Is he being sloppy equating art with aesthetically pleasing artworks, or is he just being provocative? Is he being ignorant or calculating? Has anybody out there (in the US) read his tome? I'd love to hear some opinions. Get some reviews even? His book is now out in the States where he is currently promoting it, and it will be here next month.

Now there are some books examining notions of a biological basis for art that are highly regarded - like Morse Peckham's Man's Rage For Chaos - but I suspect Dutton's book will not be one of those. Take a look at this lecture and you'll see why. As a philosopher he is highly emotional, with an intense dislike for contemporary art (he even fumes over Chuck Close) and a real loathing for continental theory. He longs for a conservative resurgence of pre-modern art that is representational and skill-based.

Normally such personal opinions wouldn't matter, but Dutton spends much of this lecture telling jokes and not providing a cohesive argument. The main flaw as I've suggested above is that real 'art' as he sees it is pre-Duchampian and a mixture of disciplines - he mixes up music (eg. Beethoven), literature (Austen) and art (Rembrandt) so that the three disparate traditions become one. Over the long course of time the 'artist' sexes have perpetuated a pleasure seeking, cross-cultural 'art gene' that assists the survival of our species.

What he doesn't explain is how this went wrong, why over the last 1-200 years did art become so different? Why is it that the majority of tertiary art education institutions, concert halls, libraries and museums promote works with values Dutton despises? Why is he a 'relic' out of step with his time? Modernism and post-modernism are here to stay and certainly there is no hint of any future reversion to pre-modernism - though those values are certainly not obliterated.

Take a look...


a camera in the world said...

I haven't read it yet but at his website for the book there are some reviews.

David Boyce

John Hurrell said...

Trouble is David, that is a site set up to promote the book. It would be nice to find a source of reviews that was more neutral. Some place less partisan. After all, Denis is not going to post stuff that slams it, is he?

a camera in the world said...

I know, I know, I was being a little ironic, but, and maybe a small but, there is one that slams it. Denis allows it, it could be argued, because the writer is someone whose academic take on it is something he feels he can take issue with. He can handily lump the social constructionists and other "post modern" writers he doesn't like into the same ark(very long range biblical pun intended)as creationists.....

And in my opinion a "critical" reading of the reviews reveals some less than stellar opinions.

I'm going to read it when I get my hands on it, but I think I already have a problem with his conceit about beauty being simply instinctive, and that art as he sees it (and somewhat simplifying his argument) stopped with Duchamp. I find it hard to accept that anything can be that black and white.


David Boyce